An Analysis of the Characters of The Canterbury Tales
An interesting aspect of the famous literary work, "The Canterbury Tales," is the contrast of realistic and exaggerated qualities that Chaucer entitles to each of his characters. When viewed more closely, one can determine whether each of the characters is convincing or questionable based on their personalities. This essay will analyze the characteristics and personalities of the Knight, Squire, Monk, Plowman, Miller, and Parson of Chaucer's tale.
One of Geoffrey's less believable main characters is the Knight, for reasons of chivalry. The knight displays
many traits which make him seem almost too good to be true, and a true gentleman that rarely exists in reality. The narrator sums up the knights character by stating that "Though he were worthy, he was wys,/And of his port as meeke as is a mayde." (pg. 5, The Canterbury Tales
) The knight holds four main admirable traits, making him the most liked traveler in "The Canterbury Tales," and also amplying the doubt of his realism. The reader is prepared to learn of each of his noble accomplishments and importance when the narrator remarks that" A knight ther was, and that a worthy man,/That fro the tyme that he first bigan/To ryden out, he loved chivalrye,/Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisye." (pg. 4, The Canterbury Tales) From the characters impressive introduction, it is clear that this man is the most valued and honorable traveler among the group. This perfect gentleman holds a love of ideals that are often not displayed by people. First and foremost, he believes in the ideals of chivalry, and always stays true to its principles. He also feels that one should be honest, truthful and faithful, which many people
are not all of these ideals. The knight thinks one should only do what is right, and what will gain him honor and reputation. This character also believes in freedom and generosity towards all, and displays this ideal repeatedly throughout the novel. And lastly, the knight also strongly feels that any proper person should display courtesy and elegance at all times. Another aspect of this character's life which makes him seem too prestigious to be truthful is his impressive military career. He fought in the holy war, known as the Crusades and was involved in 15 "mortal battles." In the prologue, the narrator informs the reader that "Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre,/And therto hadde he riden, no man ferre,/As wel in Cristendom as hethenesse,/And ever honoured for his worthinesse." (pg. 4, The Canterbury Tales) The knight obviously held a very respectable reputation, and was treated with much honor and respect. He was a perfect gentleman, showing kindness and understanding to everyone he came in contact with. The knight was extremely well-mannered, always being on his best behavior. His appearance was the "finishing touch," adding honor and integrity to his courageous and gentle spirit. This main character was clothed still in his armor, wearing a tunic of harsh cloth and his coat of mail is rust-stained, clearly showing remaining signs of past battles. "Of fustian he wered a gipoun/Al bismotered with his habergeoun;/For he was late y-come from his viage." (pg. 4, The Canterbury Tales) The qualities of the knight resemble those of very few people in modern society, giving a quality of exaggeration to the perfectness found in the knight. He represents the embodiment of the ideal man as seen by Chaucer.
The knight's son however, the Squire. does not display the degree of falseness the knight does. The vivacious personality of this young man closely resembles that of a modern man. He is a "lusty bachelor" of twenty, who is ultimately concerned with his appearance. He places more importance on fighting for his lady's honor, unlike his father who fought for abstract ideals or God. He also wore stylish, but very "daring" garments. The squire was dressed in a very short gown, equal in extremity to today's modern mini-skirt, which was looked down upon by the Church. The vain squire made every effort to ensure that he had perfectly curled hair. "With lokkes crulle as they were leyd in presse." (pg. 6, The Canterbury Tales) It seems as though it appeared that this young man purposely curled his hair, just as a woman would do. He is described as being as fresh as the month of May, showing his cleaniless and delightful appearance to which he took so much pride. "He was as fresh as is the month of May." (pg. 6, The Canterbury Tales) This young man is slowly but surely aspiring to knighthood just as his father did, therefore he's courteous, humble, and respects his father because he is an apprentice to his father. The young man did however, hold many social talents, which were important to have when becoming a knight. He has the abilities to sing, dance, write songs and poems, and joust, which were all important social accomplishments. The vain attitude of the Squire, and his selfish outlook, relate closely to the shallow demeanor of people today. However, due to the acuteness of the squire's perfection in the sense of manlihood, he can also be viewed as a sort of a fairytale "Prince Charming." Fairytale heros relate very well to the squire, because both are willing to do whatever they can for the love of a lady. The squire seems to possess all that a lady might dream of: agility, strength, courtesy, a nice family, manners, and good looks. Prince Charming would also possess these ideal traits and follow these lines almost exactly. Both the squire and Prince Charming are meant to be "good guys," and they both are in many aspects. They are well bred and chivalrous, fight well for honor, and have the flaw of falling in love for beauty and passion. This comparison and likeness to the fairytale prince also gives this young squire his own degree of falseness and exaggeration. In certain aspects, the Monk also displays the impression of realism through his personality and actions.
The Monk is not an ordinary holy man, but yet a worldly man who holds dear his means of personal enjoyment. He holds a very cocky, sarcastic attitude, not normally found in men of the church, which is the biggest sign of his realistic vitality. Monks usually stay apart from the outside world, not go out for "venery," a word that carries sexual connotations, or in other words hunts for pleasure, which definately sets this Monk apart from his other church officials. The narrator states that "This ilke Monk leet olde thinges pace,/And held after the newe world the space." (pg. 10, The Canterbury Tales) This statement indicates to the reader that this Monk finds joy and happiness in modern priviladges, differing him from conventional church officials. He is introduced as "An out-rydere, that lovede venerye;/A manly man, to been an abbot able." (pg. 8, The Canterbury Tales) The author describes him as being a "manly man," providing the reader with the assumption that the monk took his hunting and other "manly" activites very seriously. The author also makes it a point however, to state that he was a "fat and personable priest." So in essence, this particular monk has an unusual appearance, such explained by the Host, that he appears as though he's in charge of food and drink, or like a rooster with plenty of hens. This description confirms the impression that this Monk appears quite different from other religious figures, but yet is realistic due to his actions and appreciation of worldly pleasures. In order to explain his love of the hunt, the narrator states: "Of prikyng and of huntyng for the hare/Was al his lust, for no cost wolde he spare." (pg. 34, The Canterbury Tales, A Literary Pilgrimage) He differs greatly from other church officials in that he appears to believe its pointless to follow his monastic duties. His rejection of the life of one's mind is explicit, and the narrator agrees: "And I seyde his opinion was good./What sholde he studie and make hymselven wood." (Pg. 35, The Canterbury Tales, A Literary Pilgrimage) This Monk particularary enjoys hunting, a pastime of the nobility, which proves that the Monk cares about enjoyment rather than concerning himself with his religious duties all the time. The monk often "hunted a hare" or any other type of game that suited him. His values and attitude resemble the selfish corrupt ideals of people, who partake in actions without considering the consequences or benefit of others. This character seems to have a mix of both realistic aspects and exaggerated ones. The Monk's selfishness and desire for recreation gives him the realistic feature. However, the author's stress of his sarcassim and selfishness also applies an angle of exaggeration to his character. An emphasis of a certain trait can also be examined in the Plowman.
The Plowman is stressed as the example of an ideal middle class citizen. "A trewe swinker and a good was he,/Livinge in pees and parfit charite;" (pg. 26, The Canterbury Tales) This character is a very chivalrous workman, just as the knight was. By looking closely at this character's actions and dialogue, it can be inferred that he is the type of individual who would gladly work for a person without pay. He pays all his Church taxes on time, and is a devoted churchgoer. This citizen treats his neighbor as he would want to be treated, making him well-liked, much as the knight was. Also, he is certainly not as rowdy as the other characters. He is a decent human being, and portrays a hard-working, devoted citizen, giving him much in common with the chivalrious knight. The plowman's personality can be related to the common working class citizen of today, with the exception of a slight exaggerated flawlessness. Another character portraying an actual individual would be in the case of the Miller.
The Miller is an obnoxious character who represents the modern day bully in a sense. He is a large man with imposing figure, making him seem more powerful than the other characters. This intimidation is developed by the physical description of the miller. The workman is brawny, big-boned and muscular, and is also a good wrestler. This character is said to have a red beard and hair. He also has a rude and corrupt attitude treating his fellow travelers with contempt. His character matches the medieval conception that millers were the most important but dishonest tenants on a manor farm. He is shameless and selfish, and has a bad temper and is easily angered. In one instance, this character stole corn and proceded to charge three times the price, thinking nothing of the person he stole from. This man shows his vulgar and rude temperment when he becomes irritated upon hearing the Knight's tale of kings and queens and knights and ladies. He drunkly shouts, "I wol now quyte the Knyghtes tale." (pg. 146, The Canterbury Tales) The Host interupts the drunken man and pleads with him to wait to tell his tale, but he refuses and the Host critisizes him for his stubborness. "Thou art a fool; thy wit is overcome." (pg. 146, The Canterbury Tales) He continues to entertain his fellow travelers by telling a tale about a devious student who plans to have an affair with the wife of a dimwitted carpenter, showing his immaturity and delight in other people's misery. He also is said to have developed a "Hell mouth," or speaks "in Pilates voys." (pg. 146, The Canterbury Tales) The miller's character can be viewed as realistic, because his personality matches that of a modern day bully, in that he is very intimidating, rude and uncaring. However, his characteristic anger is slightly overstressed.
The Parson on the other hand, was a very religious, devoted, decent man. He is described as being very principled and intelligent. The parson is very noble and sets a good example towards his fellow parishioners. It is stated by the author that he is "also a lerned man, a clerk, / That Cristes gospel trewely wolde preche" (pg. 480, The Canterbury Tales) He even hates collecting income taxes from his citizens. He is known to practice what he preaches, and his values and hard work sets a good example for the common people. He worked very hard to better the lives of others around him, and therefore worked in the absence of the comforts that tend to come along with fame and glory. The Parson is in many ways the ideal traveler on the journey to Canterbury. He is learned, but unlike the other men, possess much virtue. He realizes that if the priest that the people put their trust and faith in is machiavellian, then no one can ever expect the people to be virtuous. "For if a preest be foul, on whom we truste,/No wonder is a lewed man to ruste;/" (pg. 24, The Canterbury Tales) This Parson is favorable over many other church officials, because unline them he does not run off to bigger and better places and rent his parish to someone else. These ideal qualities make him more approved than many of the other travelers, especially spiritually. He worked hard to spread goodness, act charitably, and was never hypocritical. These commendable qualities makes him a suitable parellel to what the world might view now as a model human being. Such virtue and qualities seem too good to be true, and in a way represent what every person should be like instead of how they really are.
In essence, the plot development is also based on the development of the characters and the contrast of reality and exaggeration. Chaucer purposely chose to give his characters certain aspects of reality and exaggerated traits to help develop each of the characters' tales. It is noticeable in the novel that each character's tale matches his or her personality in one way or another. For example, the knight's heroic tale of chivalry and kings and queens obviously coinsides with his traits and lifestyle. The Miller's tale of dishonesty and cheating also matches his personality of anger and rudeness. Chaucer's use of characterization helps to establish the plot and motives of the tale. Of course, the tales told by each of Chaucer's characters reciprocates the personality traits displayed by them. The knight spoke a tale of chivalry and virtue and of ladies in waiting, while the Squire spoke of love and intrigue in his story. The differences in their personalities leads to the conflicts and balance of reality and exaggeration. The knight for example, shows a great degree of embellishment because he is so well mannered and holds such virtuous ideals, which are not commonly displayed by normal beings, because of the selfish nature of humans. The knight seems to represent what Chaucer believes everyone should be like, and holds the values that people seem to overlook. The Squire, on the other hand, shows a more realistic display of characteristics, and adds variety to the story line. He displays a sense of reality in that he isn't as concerned with honor and values as his father, but rather with his own enjoyment and vanity. Chaucer's novel would be incomplete without the continuing budding of his characters.